It need not have happened under the watch of Tony Abbott’s government. For politicians obsessed with preventing deaths at sea in order to display a false sense of humanitarianism, it was cruelly fitting that it should happen in a prison on land. The law knows jokers and it knows its spectators. A Kurdish asylum seeker, Reza Berati, travels thousands of miles in order to die a violent death in a camp on Manus Island, one created out of a crude system of bribery and persuasion. That centre was founded by a spoiled sentiment, a wealthy country insisting on keeping others out.
For the record, Scott Morrison is not fit for the position of immigration minister – or rather, the more stomach churning term of “border protection minister”. In truth, no person, given the way the office has been ruthlessly shaped, is. It is a wonder that such ministerial spots should ever be filled by those obsessed by imaginative readings of sovereignty. After all, those who dare boat it to Australia are not, for the purposes of immigration, actually finding themselves in Australia. Resurrected terra nullius may have been innovative, but it is patent nonsense.
Successive Australian governments have made an immigrant portfolio redundant, treating it as a prophylactic mechanism connected with repulsion and defence. We listen to the grotesque apologies for its existence, for the notion that stability, wealth, and happiness is tied up with repelling people on the one hand, and keeping the well deserving secure on the other. Economics might well kill you.
The internationalising of Australia’s carceral approach to refugees, one that favours razor wire and batons to swift processing and determination, is not new. It reeks of bi-partisanship. The Labor opposition have aimed their criticism at the Abbott government for the casualties sustained in the camp breakout, but it would be remiss to point out that the “PNG Solution” was something the Rudd government initiated. This would explain the rather selective questions coming from the opposition benches. Nothing is being asked about speeding up the processing of claims. Nor what was found by Angus Campbell, the tight lipped commander in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, on his visit to Manus Island last week.
After initially closing the camp on Manus Island in the heady days of post-Howard’s Australia, it was re-opened as an act of desperate kindness and an electoral fillip. Besides, the current opposition want some share of any imagined success against “people smugglers”. Being brave is easy when one is being cruel.
Supporters of the program, such as the insufferable The Australian, attempt to take the sting out Berati’s death. Wait for the findings of the inquiry, its editorial cautions. Keep calm. Avoid gazing too deeply at the flawed nature of the camp system. The same paper did not see fit to wait for the confirmation of those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2003 before Australian forces tagged along for an illegal invasion of Iraq. Assumptions are always flexible.
Then comes the moralising that is always central to any attitude of venality. The brutes of history always tend to be well washed puritans. Border protection is good for the conscience, a donation in favour of life. It “saves” people. While Sunday saw “Green MPs and other grandstanders” hold “light the night” vigils, The Australian could claim that it proudly supported the drowned “men, women and children” who had been “lured by lax policies”. Berati’s death was unfortunate, but those seeking asylum could not have their day at sea. Australia had to wrest “control of its immigration system from illegal traders”. The theme of being menaced is ever strong in the border control commentariat.
Canberra, having bribed its way out of the Refugee Convention, is looking for other recruits in the region to do its legwork. Cambodia has stepped up, suggesting that it is time that it take its fair share of refugees, though much of that view was expressed by Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop. Again, the language of poverty speaks to the language of power. It is trade, it is economics, it is about breaking the “business model” of smugglers rather than preserving the rights of asylum seekers. Let a developing country deal with an established problem – they have no need to import one, as the Australian delegate T. W. White claimed at the Evian conference on Jewish refugees in 1938.
It bears reminding what White said to his fellow delegates who were gnashing their teeth over what to do with those unfortunates fleeing Nazi Germany: “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” Interestingly enough, he was also the Minister for Trade and Customs, showing how a constipated appraisal of those seeking asylum is inherent in any idea that latches on to notions of a business model. Governments, like the smugglers they ostensibly detest, trade in people’s lives – they merely disagree on what model to use.
The secrecy mantras behind Operation Sovereign Borders are not working. Democracy, wrote US Judge Damon J. Keith, dies behind closed doors. That comment was made in connection with President George W. Bush’s policy of holding hundreds of deportation hearings in secret. What happened at Manus Island was a case of force at the expense of reason. It revealed the shoddiness of imposing a detention centre in an appallingly ill-suited environment. It exposed the nastiness of privatised security. And on this occasion, it proved to be lethal.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org